First drive: 2016 Buick Cascada

Slip a Buick badge on an oddball Opel and you get the inexplicable Cascada

Badge engineering is rarely a good idea in terms of overall product quality, and the Cascada provides examples of some of its pitfalls. But with few contenders in the segment, Buick might have a hit on their hands anyway.

“What do you think of the car?” asks the gentleman next to me at our lunch stop. I consider how to respond for a moment. “I think… it will be a popular choice in rental fleets.” A few minutes later, it dawns upon me that this man is a Buick engineer, tasked with bringing the Cascada to American consumers from Europe, where it’s been sold as an Opel for the past few years.

For a moment I’m awash with guilt, and apologize for my bluntness shortly thereafter. “No, no, I appreciate the honesty.” And I really think he did – glad-handing runs rampant in this industry and it works to everyone’s detriment.

But my guilt wasn’t about whether or not I think the Cascada is a good car. It was about the fact that this man was given a set of materials to work with, a goal, and a year and a half to make it a reality – which he and his team ultimately accomplished.

But the truth of the matter is that this new Buick showcases a number of the drawbacks that are inherent to rebadging. While they don’t result in a particularly bad car, but they do create some uphill battles for Cascada from the outset, even if it largely has the convertible market in this segment to itself for the moment.

Coming to America

It’s easy to think of rebadging being a simple task of reworking the front and rear fascias, putting a different logo on the steering wheel, and sending it out the door, but in reality, it’s significantly more involved than that. In the case of the Cascada, it was a particularly extensive rework, with engineers retooling everything from the engine and suspension to the infotainment system and interior design.

These changes were presumably made to address the highest priorities of American drivers. The Cascada’s 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four cylinder engine, for instance, gets a bump up to 200 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque (or 221 lb-ft with a brief overboost function at wide open throttle), up more than 30 horsepower from the Opel’s power plant.

2016-Buick-Cascada-Convertible-007

That’s undoubtedly good news for those who like sporty convertibles, but weighing in right around 4000 pounds, the Cascada’s acceleration could still be considered leisurely, and its six-speed automatic is equally lackadaisical when asked to downshift to overtake another vehicle – enough so that I found myself using the shifter-operated manual/sport mode for more immediate response in those situations.

During our discussion of the car, my colleague from Buick’s engineering division aptly pointed out that the Cascada is not intended to be a performance vehicle. That being said, its 0 to 60 mph sprint of 8.3 seconds (which would see the Buick get dusted at the stoplight drags by a base model Dodge Caravan, for what it’s worth) is forgivable to some extent, but it does send a bit of a mixed message.

The Cascada cuts a fairly compelling figure with the top down, as evidenced by the number of people who asked about the car during my drive.

For instance, the Buick’s suspension is described as “sport tuned”, and indeed it is livelier than you expect a two ton car of this size to be when the road gets twisty. However, I would hypothesize that the suspension tuning that Buick arrived at has more to do with the 20-inch wheels with low profile tires that are fitted as standard equipment on the Cascada. Considering the fact that engineers were tasked with adding more compliance and road noise isolation to the car versus its Opel counterpart, it’s hard not to see this as a way smoothing over the negative effects of the big wheel and small tire mandate.

Then there’s the infotainment system. As Buick explains it, the Cascada’s electrical system wasn’t designed for GM’s latest technology package, which means it uses the last generation seven-inch touchscreen. While the immediate drawbacks include a lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, the center stack’s use of four knobs and more than forty different buttons results in an ergonomic mess, one which is compounded by the fact that, despite being a touchscreen display, the screen is positioned in such a way that it’s difficult to actually use comfortably.

It’s not all bad news though, and the Cascada’s strengths lie within its most important feature – the convertible top. Tucking the roof into the trunk is one-button operation that takes just 17 seconds and can be done at speeds up to 31 miles per hour. Once it’s down you’ll notice that wind buffeting is kept to a minimum and can be curtailed even further on the Premium model, which includes a wind deflector that attaches behind the front seats when the rear seats aren’t occupied by passengers.

When the roof goes back up, drivers will note that despite being a cloth top there’s more mass to it than you might initially expect, and it effectively isolates road noise from the cabin, making the Cascada feel more like a hardtop when the weather is being uncooperative.

The chassis surprisingly rigid as well, as much of the Cascada’s heft is a result of structural reinforcement, including underbody bracing, A-pillars constructed with press-hardened steel, and a reinforced “torsion box” bulkhead behind the rear seats that incorporates the pop-up roll bars. All of this added rigidity improves both handling and safety.

The Cascada also cuts a fairly compelling figure with the top down, as evidenced by the number of people who asked about the car during our drive. Visual appeal is largely subjective, and while the Cascada might not a particularly bold design, it does find appeal with Buick’s core demographic.

Finding a niche

Buick says that the Audi A3 Cabriolet is the Cascada’s primary target. And while a base model Cascada undercuts the base A3 Cabriolet by more than three thousand dollars, the majority of models rolling out the factory will be outfitted in Premium trim, which comes in just a few hundred dollars cheaper than the A3, but boasts far more standard equipment.

While that makes sense on paper, the reality is that the A3 is quicker, handles better, has a more modern infotainment system, and its badge carries more esteem than the Buick’s. The result is a value proposition that’s a bit murkier than it first appears.

Regardless, the average Buick Cascada buyer likely won’t care about much of that. Even for those that do, seventeen seconds and a sunny day might be all the convincing that’s required.

Highs

  • Solid range of standard features
  • Good noise isolation with the top up
  • One of very few convertible models in the segment

Lows

  • Instrument panel is a hot mess with dated technology
  • Sluggish performance
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